Cuộc sống không phải là vấn đề bất ổn cần giải quyết, mà là một thực tiễn để trải nghiệm. (Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.)Soren Kierkegaard
Thành công không được quyết định bởi sự thông minh tài giỏi, mà chính là ở khả năng vượt qua chướng ngại.Sưu tầm
Người ta có hai cách để học hỏi. Một là đọc sách và hai là gần gũi với những người khôn ngoan hơn mình. (A man only learns in two ways, one by reading, and the other by association with smarter people.)Will Rogers
Để chế ngự bản thân, ta sử dụng khối óc; để chế ngự người khác, hãy sử dụng trái tim. (To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart. )Donald A. Laird
Hãy tin rằng bạn có thể làm được, đó là bạn đã đi được một nửa chặng đường. (Believe you can and you're halfway there.)Theodore Roosevelt
Ta như thầy thuốc, biết bệnh cho thuốc. Người bệnh chịu uống thuốc ấy hay không, chẳng phải lỗi thầy thuốc. Lại cũng như người khéo chỉ đường, chỉ cho mọi người con đường tốt. Nghe rồi mà chẳng đi theo, thật chẳng phải lỗi người chỉ đường.Kinh Lời dạy cuối cùng
Không thể lấy hận thù để diệt trừ thù hận. Kinh Pháp cú
Lấy sự nghe biết nhiều, luyến mến nơi đạo, ắt khó mà hiểu đạo. Bền chí phụng sự theo đạo thì mới hiểu thấu đạo rất sâu rộng.Kinh Bốn mươi hai chương
Hạnh phúc đích thực không quá đắt, nhưng chúng ta phải trả giá quá nhiều cho những thứ ta lầm tưởng là hạnh phúc. (Real happiness is cheap enough, yet how dearly we pay for its counterfeit.)Hosea Ballou
Tôi không thể thay đổi hướng gió, nhưng tôi có thể điều chỉnh cánh buồm để luôn đi đến đích. (I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.)Jimmy Dean

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Joyful Wisdom
»» 3. The power of perspective

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Trí tuệ hoan hỷ - 3. Sức Mạnh Của Ðịnh Kiến

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Mua bản sách in

It is impossible to guard one's training without guarding the wandering mind.

—SANTIDEVA, The Bodhicaryavatara,
translated by Kate Crosby and Andre Skilton

SEVERAL YEARS AGO I was walking down a street in India, where many of the roads are still paved with stones. I'd set out in a hurry without putting on my sandals—a decision I soon regretted, because the sensation of walking barefoot down a stony road was, to say the least, uncomfortable. Not long afterwards I happened to mention this experience to an Indian doctor.

“Oh, very good!” he replied.
When I asked what he meant, he explained that, according to several ancient medical systems, applying pressure to various points along the soles of the feet stimulated activity in various organs and systems, thus promoting overall health. People who have some familiarity with foot reflexology are aware of the potential benefits associated with the practice, but for me, it was a novel idea. After listening to the doctor's explanation I started going barefoot more often. To my surprise, instead of discomfort I began to feel pleasure in the sensation of stones underfoot.

Why? The stones hadn't changed. My feet hadn't changed. The physical act of walking hadn't changed.

As I thought about it, I realized that the only aspect of the experience that had changed was my perspective. Previously I'd simply assumed that walking on stones would be painful. When the doctor offered a different way of looking at the situation, that alternate possibility opened the way for a transformation of experience.


The way we experience things is simply the display of our minds.

—Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, The Instructions of Gampopa, translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso

Although I'd used the same basic principle of shifting my perspective in working with the thoughts and emotions that had troubled me as a child, I hadn't really applied it to very many situations involving physical discomfort. It came as something of a shock to realize how deeply I'd associated my physical body with the idea of "me".

But there was an even more important lesson to be gained from this incident, one that has influenced the way I look at any troubling or uncomfortable situation. If 1 hadn't felt the discomfort in the first place or if I'd surrendered to it or tried to resolve it in an ordinary way—for instance, by making an effort to remember to put on my sandals every time I left my room—I wouldn't have seen that subtle layer of conditioning.

Since then, I've begun to develop a greater appreciation for those moments in which I experience pain or discomfort. Each one is a seed of deeper understanding, an opportunity to get to know my mind a little bit better, and to observe ideas about myself and the world around me that I didn't even know I had.

I don't mean to suggest that whenever I face a problem or feel irritation or discomfort I put on some sort of Buddhist detective cap and start rummaging through my mind asking, “Hmm, what's the perspective here . . . What am I not seeing? Oh, there it is! Now let me substitute a new one.” That's just a sneaky attempt to get rid of an uncomfortable situation, which ends up reinforcing the habit of seeing challenges as enemies to be conquered or “bosses” to be pacified.

The actual process involves simply staying with the situation and looking at it directly. Approaching experience in this way allows a bit of space to spontaneously open up around it, allowing us to see it in a larger context. If there's a mind that can look at an experience, logically it follows that that mind is larger than the experience itself. In that split second of recognition, it becomes possible to catch a glimpse of the mind's infinite grandeur: to see it, as my father and other teachers described, as an endless ocean in which each moment of experience is nothing more than one among a series of waves—now rising, now falling—never separate from a limitless expanse.

This glimpse also provides a working basis for comprehending the Second Noble Truth, often translated as the “origin” or “cause” of suffering. Our normal tendency is to assign the cause of suffering to circumstances or conditions. According to the Second Noble Truth, however, the cause of suffering lies not in events or circumstances, but in the way we perceive and interpret our experience as it unfolds.

One very striking example of the way in which perspective affects experience is drawn from the practice of devotees of certain Eastern religions, who will set the tips of their fingers on fire as a means of relieving the suffering of beings who experience a deeper and darker pain than many of us can imagine. The joy they have reported experiencing in making offerings of their own bodies more than offsets whatever pain they feel.

On a somewhat less extreme level, it can be said that, in general, people don't like to have their bodies kneaded or pressed, especially in areas where knots in the muscles are particularly tight. And yet they will pay for a massage, anticipating that the kneading and pressing will ultimately relieve various aches and pains and help them feel better in the long run. They'll make an appointment for pain!

I recently heard a story about a woman in Taiwan who, walking down the street with a couple of friends, felt her sock become tangled up in her shoe, causing her some pain and discomfort. “Stop!” she shouted. “I've got to fix this. The pain is unbearable.” Ironically, she was on her way to an appointment with a foot reflexologist, and when she got there she demanded, “Press harder! I'm paying a lot of money for this and I want to get my money's worth!”. I had to laugh. One moment, she was experiencing pressure on her foot that seemed unendurable, and half an hour later she was demanding more! Her response to the same basic situation changed wildly according to her interpretation and expectations

But where do these interpretations come from, and why do they affect us so deeply?


These forms we see with our physical eyes we tend to appraise in various ways.

—Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche,
The Ninth Karmapa's Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso

As we go about our lives, we depend for the most part on our capacity to make distinctions. Some of them seem very direct and simple: right and left, tall and short, loud and quiet, feet and hands, night and day. Some require a bit more discernment. Is this piece of fruit overripe or not ripe enough? Is this a reasonable price for something or could I find the same thing cheaper at another store? Some require even deeper consideration—an experience I find especially common among parents who wonder whether they're being too harsh or too lenient in disciplining their children, and also among people concerned about angry exchanges or differences of opinion in relationships with their spouses or partners: Did we say what we said or do what we did because we were having a bad day or out of a more deep-seated disagreement? I've also heard questions of a similar sort from those seeking counsel regarding people and events in their workplace. Am I judging this person unsympathetically? Am I working too hard and not taking enough time for myself or my family?

The important thing to bear in mind is that all distinctions are fundamentally relative - ideas, judgments, and sensations are based on comparison.

To use a very simple example, if you place a four-inch glass beside a six-inch glass, the four-inch glass is going to be shorter than the six-inch one. But if you place a six-inch glass next to an eight-inch glass, the six-inch glass—which was previously seen as “tall”—is now going to be “short.” Similarly, left makes sense only in relation to right, night makes sense only in comparison to day, and warm makes sense only in comparison to cold. That's a short course in what is often referred to in Buddhist teachings as relative reality: a level of experience defined by distinctions.

As I understand through discussions with various scientists, the capacity to make distinctions evolved as a survival tool. There is, inarguably, an advantage to distinguishing, say, between plants or fruits that are poisonous and sources of food that are nourishing. Likewise, it would be quite useful to distinguish between something to eat and something that might eat us!

Human beings respond in complicated ways to this distinction-making process, which may be understood in both biological and psychological terms.

From a strictly biological point of view, any act of perception requires three essential elements: organs of sensation—like the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, and the skin; an object of sensation—such as, say, a flower; and the capacity to process and respond to the signals we receive from our sense organs. The sense organs, the areas of the brain, and the links that connect them are made up primarily of cells known as neurons. The human brain is made up of billions of neurons, many of which are organized to form structures related to learning, memory, and emotion. The interaction between these structures can be very complicated.

Lets say you're looking at a flower: a red rose, to be specific. That's the object—or what, in scientific terms, is referred to as a Stimulus. Now when you look at the rose, the cells in your eye first notice this thing made up of a bunch of red things that are sort of round at the top and sort of pointed at the bottom, where they connect with a long green thing that may have green roundish things poking out of it along with some darker, pointy things. The image is transmitted through a group of cells that constitute a kind of fiber or cord that make up the optic nerve, which sends visual information from the eye to the visual cortex, an area in the brain dedicated to organizing stimuli received through the sense of sight.

Upon receiving this visual stimulus, the visual cortex sends an “instant message” to the area of the brain known as the thalamus, a group of cells located near the very center of the brain, where many of the messages from the senses are “decoded” before being sent to other areas of the brain. Interestingly, the word thalamus is an ancient Creek term meaning “bedroom”—a place where private conversations are often known to occur.

Once the messages from the visual cortex are passed to the thalamus, they're sent in several directions. One set is sent to the limbic system, a layer of the brain primarily responsible for distinguishing between pain and pleasure, determining emotional responses, and providing a foundation for learning and memory.

Two important structures in this area of the brain play particularly significant roles in interpreting these messages and the memories we make of them. One is the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped group of neurons that determine the emotional content of experience. If you were pricked by one of those “dark, pointy things,” for sample, you may likely respond to that “red thing made up of a bunch of red things' as “bad” or “unpleasant”. The other is the hippocampus which is a kind of storehouse for the spatial and temporal elements of memory. It provides the context or meaning for experience, enabling us to remember, for example, where and when we saw a rose for the first time.

Simultaneously the intimate conversation gathered in the bed-room of the thalamus is passed on to the neocortex, the outermost layer of the brain widely understood by neuroscientists as an area devoted primarily to analytical functions. This is the area of the brain in which we begin to learn how to name things, discern patterns, and formulate concepts—where we define “the red thing made up of a bunch of red things” as a rose. It's also the area that modulates the memories and emotional responses generated in the limbic region, tamping down some and heightening others.

Though lengthy to describe, all of this communication between the thousands of cells that make up our sense organs and the various neuronal structures in the brain occurs in a fraction of a second, less time than it takes to snap our fingers. And the brain responds almost immediately, prompting the release of chemicals like cortisol, adrenaline, dopamine, and endorphins to course through our bodies to slow or speed our heart rate and shift our mood. At the same time, a series of links is established among sense organs, brain-structures, vital organs, and glands - a kind of instant messaging network that, put very simply, creates an internal "map" of a red rose.

In other words, we're not really seeing the rose itself, but rather a concept of it. This concept is often conditioned by a broad range of factors, including the circumstances surrounding our initial experience, the memories and expectations stored in various parts of the brain, modifications that may occur through later experience—and, perhaps most importantly, the distinction between the experiencer (me) and what is experienced (the rose).

The distinction of “me” as an entity inherently separate from, for example, a rose, is itself an internal image that emerges from the interactions among various neuronal structures and other bodily systems. This image may be quite vague very early in life. As we mature, however, our internalized sense of “me” as something distinct from “not me” becomes more vivid, as do distinctions such as “pleasant” and “unpleasant,” and “desirable” and “undesirable.” We also distinguish a sort of “neutral” zone, in which we haven't decided how we relate to our experience. Just as some people organize files, papers, photographs, and other things by putting them in different boxes, we arrange our experiences in conceptual "boxes".

From my discussions with people trained in various scientific disciplines, it's clear there are some differences of opinion as to how, when, and why these boxes emerge. There does seem to be some agreement among modern schools of thought, however, that the “me” box begins to develop at birth, when an infant is separated from the body of his or her mother and begins to experience life as an individual being, facing an internal and external environment that is not altogether predictable.

As infants, we're driven by a need for comfort, particularly in the form of food or warmth, as well as by a resistance to experiences of discomfort, like being hungry, cold, or wet. Sometimes we're comforted; sometimes we're not. The “me” box may not be very solid or consistent—or even expressible except in terms of crying, burping, gurgling, or grinning-but inherent in pleasant and unpleasant experiences is the possibility of defining a “not me” box, along with “good”; “bad,” and other boxes.

Later, during the stage that many parents describe as the “terrible twos,” when children begin to assert an independent identity more often than not by saying “no”—these different boxes appear to have taken a more solid, definite shape. The potential for other boxes to emerge is already set in motion.


Beings think “I” at first and cling to self;
They think of “mine” and are attached to things.

—Chandrakirti, Introduction to the Middle Way, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group

Centuries before the development of Western science, the Buddha arrived at an understanding that suffering originates in the mind-in the “eye" so to speak, “of the beholder.” Though the terms he used may differ from those of modern-day biologists, neuroscientists, and psychologists, the insights he offered are remarkably similar.

According to the early written presentations of the Buddha's teachings on the Second Noble Truth, dukkha arises from a basic mental condition referred to in Pali as tanha, or "craving". The student who translated the early Pali transcripts into Sanskrit defined the cause as trishna, or thirst. When the teachings were brought to Tibet, the cause was translated as dzinpa, or grasping.

In their own ways, each of these three terms reflects a fundamental yearning for permanence or stability - or, look at in another way an attempt to deny or ignore impermanence. The most basic of these yearnings is the tendency, often described in Buddhist texts as ignorance, to mistake “self,” “other,” “subject,” “object,” “good,” “bad,” and other relative distinctions as independently, inherently existing. On a very simple level, ignorance could be described as thinking that the label on a bottle of hot sauce is the hot sauce.

From the conception of people, places, and things as inherently solid and real arise two similarly powerful urges. The first, commonly referred to as desire, is a craving to acquire or keep whatever we determine as pleasant. The second, known as aversion, is a pull in the opposite direction, to avoid or eliminate things we define as unpleasant.

Collectively, ignorance, desire, and aversion are referred to in Buddhist writings as “The Three Poisons,” habits of relating to experience that are so deeply rooted that they cloud or “poison” the mind. Individually and in combination, they give rise to innumerable other attitudes and emotions—for example, pride, perfectionism, low self-esteem, or self-hatred; the jealousy we feel when a coworker gets a promotion we think we deserve; or the lump of grief and hopelessness that overwhelm us when dealing with an ill or aging parent. Accordingly, some Buddhist teachings refer to these attitudes and emotions as “afflictions” or “obscurations,” because they limit the ways in which we interpret our experience— which, in turn, inhibits our potential to think, feel, and act. Once we develop a sense of “me” and “not me,” we begin to relate to our experience in terms of “mine” and “not mine”; “what I have” and “what I don't have”; and “what I want” and “what I don't want.”

Imagine, for example, that you're driving down the road in your own, worn-out old car, and pass a fancy new car-a Mercedes or a Rolls-Royce-that's just been dented in an accident. You might feel a little sorry for the owner, but you wouldn't necessarily feel any attachment to the car. A few months later, finding yourself in a position to trade in your old car, you visit a used auto lot—and there's a Mercedes or Rolls-Royce available at an incredible price! It's actually the same car you saw dented in an accident a few months earlier, but as soon as you sign the contract, it doesn't matter. The car is yours now—and as you drive it home, a pebble cracks the windshield. Tragedy! My car is ruined. I'm going to have to pay to get it fixed.

It's the same car dented in an accident a few months earlier, and you may not have felt much about it one way or another as you drove by. But now it's your car, and if the windshield is cracked, you experience anger, frustration, and maybe a little fear.

So why not just stop? Why not just let go of the poisons and their “offspring”?

If it were that easy, of course, we'd all be buddhas before we reached the end of this sentence!

According to the Buddha's teachings and commentaries by other masters, the Three Poisons and all the other mental and emotional habits that arise from them are not in themselves the causes of suffering. Rather, suffering arises from attachment to them, which is the closest you can get to the essential meaning of the Tibetan word dzinpa. As mentioned earlier, this word is often interpreted as “grasping,” but I've also heard it translated as “fixation,” which I think captures more closely the deeper significance of the term. Dzinpa is an attempt to fix in time and place that which is constantly moving and changing.

“That's like killing butterflies!” a student of mine recently exclaimed.

When I asked her what she meant, she described how some people make a hobby of capturing butterflies, killing them, and pinning their bodies in glass or plastic display cases for the sheer pleasure of looking at their collection or showing them off to their friends.

“Such beautiful, delicate creatures,” she said sadly. “They're meant to fly. If they don't fly, they're not really butterflies anymore, are they?”

In a way, she was right.

When we become fixed in our perceptions, we lose our ability to fly.


All living beings, the contents of this world, are impermanent.

—Jamgon Kongtrul, The Torch of Certainty, translated by Judith Hanson

The intensity of suffering caused by strong attachment to a set of beliefs or perceptions was vividly demonstrated to me through an encounter with an elderly woman who came to visit me in the United States a few years back. As soon as she sat down, she started to cry.

“It's okay,” I told her. “When you've calmed down, you can tell me what's wrong.”
We waited a few moments while she composed herself. Finally she said, “I don't want to be old. When I look in the mirror, I see all these wrinkles and I hate them. I hate them so much, the other day I broke my mirror. So of course I had to go out and buy another one. But when I look in it, all I can see are the wrinkles and it drives me crazy. I get so angry and depressed I don't know what to do.”

I have to admit, I was a little surprised by her outburst. My grandmother had had a lot of wrinkles, but I thought they made her face all the more beautiful—so soft and gentle, full of wisdom, and always smiling. I didn't say this directly, of course. When someone is experiencing pain, probably the worst thing we can do is say something like, “Well, that's just your perception. Change your perception and your experience will change.” If one of my teachers had said anything like that to me when I was bound up in my own anxiety and fear, I don't think it would have made any sense to me and I might have ended up feeling more alone and bewildered than I already felt. What I needed during my own struggles was an understanding that I was facing a dilemma that all people—all living creatures, in one way or another—experience: a profound and penetrating desire to survive, to live and to flourish, and maybe to experience some moments of peace.

I'm grateful to my father and my other teachers for taking me through this process. They urged me to just look at what I was experiencing—and to comprehend through simply looking that thoughts, emotions, judgments, and sensations come and go. In doing so, they brought home in a very practical way the brilliance of the Buddha's teachings on the Four Noble Truths. He could have skipped the Second Noble Truth altogether—going from the first, the Truth of Suffering, to the third, the Truth of Cessation. Instead, he offered an explanation that would help us to face and work with the causes and conditions that create whatever hardships we experience in this life. At the same time, the Second Noble Truth emphasizes that we are not alone in facing challenges. In one way or another, attachment to our perceptions of who or what we are, what we want or need, and what we don't want or need, is common to all living creatures.

Following the example of my teachers, I began talking to the woman so pained by her wrinkles about impermanence and how it is the basic condition we all face. If we can accept it, then we can actually see that there are some benefits to the changes, overt and subtle, we undergo throughout the course of life.

“When you fixate on what you were like and what you were capable of doing when you were young,” I told her, “you won't be able to see some of the advantages to growing old. Think about the things that you can do now that you couldn't do when you were young. Think of the perspective your experience has brought you. You might also remember,” I added, “points in your life when you were young and you couldn't wait to be older, to enjoy the opportunities that a wiser, more experienced, and respected person enjoys. If you fixate only on the gross levels of change, you won't see the benefits of the subtler changes. When I was younger, I couldn't wait to get old. I'd be free to do what I want and be more stable. Nobody could tell me what to do.”

A year later, when I was passing through the United States again, she came for another visit. This time, she was relaxed and smiling, and after she sat down, she announced that she hadn't broken any mirrors since our last meeting.
“I realized after our talk,” she explained, “that time wasn't my enemy; age wasn't my enemy. My own fixation was my enemy. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was what I thought other people were seeing—an old woman, unattractive and useless. And I started acting that way too, so of course people started treating me as old and useless. It became a vicious cycle.

“But when I started thinking about the experience I'd gained over the years, I actually started feeling a little proud of my wrinkles. Each one was like a badge of honor, a crisis survived, a test passed. I started looking at other people my age, thinking, 'Yes, we've all gone through a lot. And there's more to come, little changes and big ones.' I won't say I jump out of bed every morning looking forward to the changes. I'm a little old for jumping,” she laughed. “But I find myself paying more attention to my life, to the moment, you might say. Because that's all I have, isn't it? The moment. And there's a lot more going on in this one moment than I ever thought.”

I was impressed. With very little guidance, this woman had come to terms with the attachment to an idea of herself, the principal cause of the discomfort that underlies so much of human experience. She'd faced it and learned from it, and in so doing gained a deeper appreciation of her life.

That is the essential lesson of the Second Noble Truth. Acknowledging that all conditions are bound to change, we can approach each moment with a bit more clarity and confidence, relaxing into it rather than resisting it or being overwhelmed by it. We don't have to be bossed around by our experiences. Neither do we have to fight or flee from them as “enemies.” We have the potential to look at our experiences and recognize, “This is what's happening now, at this moment. The next moment will bring another experience, and the moment after that will bring another.”

Resistance to these moment-by-moment changes is one of the best ways I know to explain in modem terms the fixation which the Buddha and later teachers describe as the cause of the broad range of suffering and discomfort encompassed by the term dukkha.


Even a tiny spark of fire can set alight a mountain of hay.

—Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group

Attachment to the poisons may be considered the immediate cause of suffering, but just as a seed typically requires some combination of soil, water, and sunlight in order to ripen, the various afflictions develop in different ways according to the complex interaction of conditions that vary from individual to individual. Many of these conditions arise from specific personal experiences, the family environment in which we were raised, the influence of the cultures in which we live, as well as genetic factors that are only now beginning to be understood by experts in the fields of biology and neuroscience. Such factors may be considered the soil, water, and sunlight of our individual lives.

Among many Asian cultures, for example, signs of age are acknowledged as tokens of respect: a widespread cultural acknowledgment that long life confers some type of wisdom derived through experience. In many of the Western countries I've visited, signs of age appear to represent some kind of loss, frailty, or being “out of touch.” In India, where I have spent a great deal of my life, a large belly, a round face, and a double or even triple chin are considered by many as signs of health and success and wealth. Yet among many of the people I've met in Western cultures these same physical characteristics are often considered signs of ill health.

In many cultures—Eastern as well as Western—the social situation into which you're born may be considered a sign of strength or weakness, and may have an effect on how a person views him-or herself and is viewed by others. The Buddha, for example, was born to the kshatriya or “warrior” class, and was raised with a great many privileges denied to many other members of Indian society of his era. Abandoning his position and privileges, he took an important step toward acknowledging the influence familial and cultural conditions have in determining our perception of ourselves.


He simply rode away. I can't say what was going through his mind as he left all those privileges behind, but I suspect there may have been a sense of freedom—a feeling of release from the expectations that bound him.

Children born in the same family are sometimes subtly, sometimes openly compared against each other. One person I encountered on a recent trip to Canada described this situation: “My older brother—the firstborn—was always considered the golden boy,” he said “He could do no wrong in my father's eyes. My father spent hours with him, teaching him how to throw a baseball, fix a car engine, and drive a boat. When my time came to learn these things, my dad would often grumble, 'Why can't you be as smart as your brother? You're never going to do this right.'

“I was lucky in some ways, though,” he continued. “My mother was always there behind the scenes, telling me that I was smart in other ways. You've got a good math brain,' she'd say.

“Ultimately, I became an accountant and my brother became a mechanic. Looked at from the outside, I have a much more comfortable life than he does: a well-paying job, a large house, two cars, and the ability to send my daughters to piano and dance lessons. But I've never been able to escape the feeling that I'm somehow less-than, that everything I do at work and for my family is an attempt to be the 'golden boy' I never was as a child.

“I love my brother and we get along very well. But I still feel a little jealous of him and that jealousy extends to other people I work with. I'm always worried about pleasing my supervisors and I worry if others in my department get their assignments done more quickly and efficiently than I do. So I often work later than I probably should, which means I spend less time with my family. I provide for my family in financial ways, but I often wonder if I'm depriving them emotionally. My brother just leaves his job at five o'clock, sometimes bringing home a pizza, and sits in front of the television watching programs his kids like but he doesn't. But he does it because he enjoys watching his children laugh. No matter what I do, I can't seem to get over the feeling that I'm never going to be as successful, happy, or contented as my brother. No matter how hard I try, I'm never going to be good enough.”

What tremendous courage it took this man to be aware of his jealousy and to admit to his feeling of not being good enough! Looking so directly at the causes and conditions of suffering is an essential step in recognizing the possibility of overcoming the limitations we tend to think of as inevitable or unchangeable.

In addition to social and familial circumstances, very personal experiences can also condition people's views of themselves and their experiences. A number of people I've met and spoken with have talked about how a sleepless night, an argument with a spouse, partner, child, or colleague, or the end of a romantic relationship can adversely affect their view of themselves and the world around them.

Others, meanwhile, have entered the private interview room in whatever place I'm teaching positively glowing with happiness because they've recently found their “soul mate,” landed the job they've always wanted, or just closed the deal on their “dream house.”

These conversations have, in many ways, deepened my own understanding of the Second Noble Truth. Grasping, fixation, or thirst—however you want to define it—is, in many cases, an instantaneous, often unconscious response to the basic condition of impermanence: what some of my friends who work in the field of psychology might call a “defense mechanism.”

Words like “attachment” and “grasping” don't really capture the complexity of the underlying nature of this mechanism, which may best be described as a kind of balancing act between hope and fear: hope that things will either change or stay the same and fear of the same things. Sometimes we're propelled in one direction or another and sometimes we're caught between these two extremes and don't know what to think.

One of the questions I'm asked most frequently in public teachings and private interviews is, “How can I get rid of attachment? How can I get rid of hope and fear?”

The simple answer is “By not trying.”


Because when we try to get rid of something, we're really just reinforcing hope and fear. If we treat some condition, feeling, sensation, or any other type of experience as an enemy, we only make it stronger: We're resisting and succumbing to it at the same time. The middle way proposed by the Buddha begins by simply looking at whatever it is we're thinking or feeling: I'm angry. I'm jealous. I'm tired. I'm afraid.

As we look, gradually we'll come to notice that thoughts and feelings aren't as fixed or solid as they originally appeared. Impermanence has its advantages. All things change - even our hopes and fears.


Life doesn't stay in place even for a moment.

—Gampopa, 'The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche

Observing minute changes in our experience does take some practice. The next time you pass a bathroom mirror, stand in a way that you don't see your face. Look at the other things reflected there: the tiles on the wall, for example, or the arrangement of towels. Then look at your face. Take a moment to notice any differences in the mental and emotional responses you might experience to what you see in the mirror. Do you notice any differences in the way you respond to the “background” and your reactions to your own face?

If you can, repeat this exercise in front of the same mirror later in the day or perhaps the next day. Do you notice any changes in the background? Do you notice any changes in your own face? Chances are you'll notice some differences. The tiles may have been scrubbed or they may be a little bit more soiled. The towels or other elements of the room may be slightly rearranged. When at last you look at your face, you may notice small differences, as well.

Don't continue this exercise for very long—maybe thirty seconds or so. Just notice any sort of mental or emotional reaction to these changes: “The place looks tidier today,” or “I look tired,” or “I look old “ or “I look fat.” Whatever thoughts or emotions come up will provide insight into the particular nature of your own biases and attachments. Don't judge them or try to analyze them. Just look at them. The point of the exercise is to begin to recognize that even the simplest act of sensory perception is invariably accompanied by a veil of thoughts and emotions through which you interpret it.

If we continue looking, we'll gradually find it easier to distinguish between bare perceptions and the mental and emotional factors that accompany them. Recognizing these factors doesn't mean we have to reject or eliminate them, however. In pointing out the role of the mind in shaping our experience, the Second Noble Truth—which represents the second stage of the Buddha's diagnostic approach to the problem of suffering—prepares us for the “prognosis” of the Third.

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